New Lamar HS features innovative academic neighborhoods

Lamar High School 11th-grader Mackenzie Wilson is an active student. She plays volleyball and serves as student body president while also working on her International Baccalaureate diploma. After graduation, she hopes to study pathology or constitutional law. 

Although she is confident in her academic endeavors, Wilson said it was easy to get lost in the crowd at Lamar — a sprawling campus home to about 3,000 students.  

But when the school introduced its academic neighborhoods concept at the start of this school year, everything changed. 

“I feel like I’ve built better relationships with my teachers because I can talk to them at almost any time throughout the day,” Wilson said. “I’m also closer to my classmates because that’s who I have most of my classes with.” 

Built under the 2012 Bond Program, the state-of-the-art learning spaces are part of a $122 million project, which includes a new academic wing built perpendicular to the existing building, which is undergoing renovation to preserve its historically significant architecture. 

The academic wing — the first phase of the project, which opened to students in August — features four large flexible academic areas, each divided into 16 self-contained “neighborhoods” that house 200 or fewer students.  

The innovative design aims to facilitate the school’s interdisciplinary and project-based educational approach. Students spend most of their time in their designated neighborhood — each named after a city with an IB program and featuring frosted glass depictions of that city’s skyline. Teachers move within the neighborhood.  

“The academic neighborhoods allow students to reap the benefits of small learning communities while continuing to enjoy the many opportunities of a comprehensive campus,” Lamar High School Principal Rita Graves said. 

Wilson studies Physics, U.S. History, and English in the Chicago neighborhood, where classes are partitioned by collapsible gray walls to maximize flexibility and students sit in desks on wheels, giving them the ability to fidget a bit. 

The junior said she has quickly grown comfortable in her new environment. Between classes, she moves about the school with more confidence, talking to her friends about an upcoming project and helping to coordinate decorations for homecoming. 

“The new building really had an impact on the way everyone communicates and teaches,” Wilson said. “There’s a lot more personal attention from teachers on each individual student.” 

Graves said she is proud to lead Lamar as it steps into the future. 

“This is a building that can grow and change as education methods evolve,” the principal said.